Addressing Current Events in the World History Classroom
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall
World history teachers sometimes feel uncomfortable discussing current events in our classrooms.1 After all, unlike our social science colleagues, our mandate involves teaching students about the past rather than the present. World history surveys already pose an enormous structural challenge: how to cover hundreds of years of global history in a single semester. The addition of extra material, ripped from the headlines, might seem like it will compound this problem, stealing time that should be devoted to the complexities of the past.
At the same time, a chief merit of our discipline is that it can help students better understand the present – to trace the historical origins of current debates and crises. In an era when the humanities are dismissed as irrelevant, and pundits and politicians often know little about the past, historians no longer have the luxury of ignoring the present and of failing to engage with current events.
In a deeply divided society, discussing headlines in the classroom might seem daunting. How can world history teachers discuss controversial topics without alienating students or distracting from what we are supposed to be teaching? A recent discussion on H-World raised the question of how world historians could discuss the present without crossing into partisanship. One worry expressed was that this task has become more complicated since the 2016 election. 2
In this article, I want to share my approach to addressing current events in the world history classroom. While commentators may see our current political landscape as unusually divided or uncivil, I have always taught a politically diverse population. My approach has been to engage all of my students, without alienating those whose views might be different than my own. In referencing current topics, I connect them to our material and use them as fodder for historical analysis. Indeed, in invoking current events in my classroom, I address students not as Democrats or Republicans (let alone potential Front national voters or Chinese Communist Party members, since my classes include international students of unknown political beliefs). Instead, I treat my students as budding historians, for whom current events are a particularly resonant means of learning how to think historically.
World history instructors may find themselves discussing current events in class for two reasons: first, if they introduce this material, and second, if students ask questions connecting past with present. I will start with the latter case, since it might seem most intimidating to teachers who do not normally integrate current events into their classes. The H-World discussion focused on two sample questions that a teacher might worry about answering, lest she seem partisan. The first was "What is fascism and is it true that the President is fascist?" and the second was "I see the French government is trying to eliminate wage differences between men and women. We don't have wage differences between men and women, do we?" In my response in that discussion, I noted that I approach such questions as I always have, teaching in an area (northern San Diego County) with deep political fractures. I address questions differently depending on whether they ask for facts or my opinion.
In the first case, regarding whether the President is fascist, I would want to ensure that my students know what fascism means historically, as opposed to as an airy epithet. I would begin by giving them primary sources, such as Mussolini's "What is Fascism (1932)" from the Italian encyclopedia (Internet Modern History Sourcebook [https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/mussolini-fascism.asp]). I would talk about the traumas of World War I and how fascism developed in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Only after ensuring that students understood interwar fascism (a topic squarely within the mandate of modern world history courses) would I explain that there are debates today about whether the president's ideas and conduct are fascist. I almost always reframe questions that ask for my opinion about the present; I am aware of the power dynamics of my classroom and know that giving students my own answer might preempt their critical thinking by implying that I expect them to agree. Instead, I try to present a range of analyses. In this case, I would refer them to articles from History News Network [https://historynewsnetwork.org/] offering competing perspectives from historians on this question.3 Depending on when in the semester the question was posed, I might say, "We'll be learning more about fascism in a few weeks, and you'll be able to decide what you think then!"
I take a different approach to questions that call for factual information, such as the wage gap between male and female workers in the U.S. It has not been my experience that college students, even in 2018, are hostile to being presented with data. Consequently, I would treat this question not as a political but a factual one. I have found that students enjoy digging deeper beyond what they see on the news, and that they feel empowered when they learn things that others around them do not know. In this case, I might say, "Though many people don't realize it and the extent of this gap has changed over time, there are still wage gaps; here is some recent data." One of our mandates as world historians is teaching information literacy; it is essential that instructors help students assess the veracity of information available online. If I did not know the latest data on the wage gap, I might model a Google search for it. I would explain the limits of Wikipedia (an entry might have links to high-quality articles in its References, but we cannot be sure of the accuracy of crowdsourced content without further research).4 Bypassing Wikipedia, I would show them data from more reliable sources that confirm a gap, even if they disagree about its extent. These might include pages from the U.S. Department of Labor (https://www.dol.gov/wb/media/gender_wage_gap.pdf), the Pew Research Center (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/03/gender-pay-gap-facts/), the American Association of University Women (https://www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap/) and CNN (http://money.cnn.com/2018/01/04/pf/pay-gap-sexual-harassment/index.html). Depending on how much time we had, I might link this question to larger issues about gender in world history; I might explain that, even though ideas about gender in the U.S. and elsewhere have evolved significantly in the last century, inequalities remain.
Certainly, given our time constraints, not every question can receive a thorough response. Sometimes I say that a question will distract us too much from our main topic, and I invite a student to chat after class. Still, I receive greater student engagement when I am responsive to at least some questions about the present. If that requires me to trim details on the spot from a planned lecture, I find that pushes me into sharper focus about my core learning objectives. Helping students distinguish between minor details and major historical changes is one of the hallmarks of my world history survey. It is worthwhile for me as an instructor, in turn, to have regular tune-ups to my lesson plans; my students benefit when I am forced to reassess what they must leave the class knowing, as opposed to details that they may forget right after the exam.
Student questions connecting past and present have greatly improved my course over two decades of teaching world history. When I first began teaching the survey, I avoided discussing the news. I wanted students to understand how the past shaped the present – but I felt that, if we had not covered a topic yet, it was too early for them to make connections between it and something happening now. Moreover, I worried about jumping around chronologically, when I was trying to teach the importance of causality and of unintended consequences. I hesitated to say anything about the present until the very last class period, when I would give my "The World in ___" (whatever year it was) lecture. Only on that day would I offer my own analysis of the present, whether on the legacy of colonialism or the potentially dangerous effects of new technologies (for instance, how internet search engines facilitate bomb-making).
Student questions prompted me to change that approach and to make connections earlier.5 As someone who lives in the U.S. and who was trained as a European historian, I used to teach industrialization and unhealthy worker conditions as nineteenth-century topics. But students, who have diverse backgrounds and whose lives are often more rooted in the present, reminded me that the conditions we read about in industrializing Britain are current elsewhere, whether in maquiladoras across our border with Mexico or on iPhone assembly lines in China. Alluding to continuing battles over workplace regulation (whether abroad or in U.S. debates over sick leave for workers) has made the Industrial Revolution less remote.
In addition to discussing headlines when students invoke them, I find that planning references to the news makes students more engaged.6 Unlike my upper-division college courses, which students take because they enjoy history, my lower-division surveys enroll many non-majors who are there because of general education requirements. These students may have come to believe that history is boring, a series of names and dates they must memorize which are irrelevant to their lives. Connecting past and present helps move students away from this view; it captures their attention and illustrates why world history is worthwhile.
As an example, I integrated the 2018 Women's Marches into the first lecture of the semester in January 2018. On the first day of class, I always introduce students to what doing world history means, compared to national history. We consider the vast amount of material our course spans (1500 to the present around the world) and how that makes our enterprise different from other history courses (even from a U.S. history survey, which has to speed through 150 years of history from only one country). I explain that we cannot possibly treat everything that happened everywhere in the last five centuries—that we will only scratch the surface, learning big themes and whetting their appetite for future learning about topics of their choice. I also explain that world historians are interested in connections and comparisons: if a process happened only in one country and had no resonance elsewhere, it may be of interest to a national historian but not a world historian. However, if a phenomenon happened in Texas, Tokyo and Togo, then a world historian will want to investigate it.
Turning to the marches, I showed media coverage exploring the differences in emphasis at rallies in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. I explained that, while these variations were interesting, at first the March seemed to me to be a national event—of interest to a historian of the U.S. but not to a world historian. As I delved more deeply into the coverage, I showed them that Women's Marches had taken place not only in Oklahoma City and Orlando, but also in Osaka, Ottawa and Oaxaca. I added that, when making comparisons, world historians focus on the interplay between global trends and local processes. I therefore explained that, even if people participated in an event with a common title, they did not always march for the same reasons; they often cared more about issues relevant locally. Where U.S. marchers focused on U.S. politics, marchers abroad did not necessary wear "pussy hats" or discuss President Trump. I showed posters from the marches in Osaka linking more to the #TimesUp movement and calling for respect for women in general.7 In Ottawa, marchers focused on local issues. As the New York Times reported, "Many marchers wore red scarves as a gesture of support for the large number of indigenous women whose murders or disappearances have received relatively little attention from the police."8
I further used the marches to explain that visual representations of data, such as maps, can be misleading. Though the Women's March Global map showed dots all over the world,9 I explained, that did not mean the march was equally important to residents in each of those places. Where a march in the U.S. might have drawn tens of thousands, a dot in Asia or Africa might represent a few dozen. World historians, I told them, are interested in connections, but we do not assume that a phenomenon happening in multiple locations has equal strength in each.
Without advocating for or against these marches, I illustrated what world historians do. I found that students who were hostile to having to take a history course seemed more invested in our material afterwards; they realized that I would help them better understand current events without requiring that they adopt a particular political perspective. By keeping our focus on historical analysis skills, I was able to make our class meaningful to students who had participated in these marches, without estranging students who opposed them.
In upper division classes, I also try to show students how a world history approach can help them understand contemporary politics and diplomacy. Even when my political perspective, informed by my work as a historian, differs from my students, I have found that students often discover the parallels that I think about, especially after reading sources. In Fall 2003, I taught my Comparative French Colonialism course to a population that included veterans, active-duty Marines, and family members of deployed soldiers. At the height of the "Freedom Fries" era, many were angry with France for not participating in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If I had tried to explain to them myself that the French were not being irrational in choosing to join the U.S. in Afghanistan but not in Iraq, I might have faced a mutiny! Instead, I waited patiently for our unit on the French experience in Algeria. After students read primary and secondary sources about this topic,10 many realized that the French thought they would be greeted with flowers for "rescuing Algerians from Ottoman tyranny." They also discovered that Algerian Muslims were bitterly opposed to being invaded by European Christians and had begun decades of armed resistance. By the end of this unit, students had lightbulbs go off in their minds, commenting that the French experience in Algeria "seems just like what is happening with us in Iraq." They realized that the French decision not to join the U.S. had been based not in cowardice or a "willingness to appease," but on lessons learned from Algeria.
Analyzing the news can be more challenging if an event has happened just before class, and I have little time to plan my lesson. Still, I try to take a similar approach to recent controversies like that over DACA. When President Trump announced the revocation of this program early on September 5, 2017, I knew that I must address it that day in my course on Travel and Contact in the Early Modern World. Not only are borders and migration among the course's core themes, but I expected that some students would be anxious and unable to focus on our material if I did not acknowledge what had happened. I teach at a public comprehensive university in California that serves a diverse population of traditional and non-traditional students. CSUSM has been designated a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and an Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI); it is also considered among the top 25 campuses in the country for veterans and active duty students.11 Among my students were undoubtedly some who were DACAmented and others who were citizen children of undocumented parents. I also anticipated that our class contained students who shared the President's views about immigrants; I wanted to make sure that they did not feel excluded from the historical enterprise in which we were engaged. I chose to focus on the fact that recent ideas of borders—as fixed lines that must not be crossed without papers—are a relatively new phenomenon, one that was not widespread in the early modern period. I also referred students to my colleague Deborah Kang's book The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917–1954 (Oxford UP, 2017), which traces changes in US-Mexico border policy over the twentieth century, as well as the uneven ways in which immigration laws have been applied.
Overall, I have found it pedagogically useful to incorporate current events into world history courses, even if only for a small portion of class time. Students of all views have welcomed the idea that history can help them decode confusing news stories. Ideally, all of my students (no matter where they fall on the political spectrum) leave my courses having changed their mind about some mistaken belief they held, and with better appreciation for the value of history. In teaching students historical thinking skills and arming them with information about the past, I aim to empower them to draw their own conclusions about the present. For one thing, once they graduate, they will no longer have my colleagues or me to turn to for this kind of analysis, so they will need to develop these habits themselves. Even more so, I find that knowledge "sticks" more when it is discovered for oneself rather than having been force-fed. When students email years later, indicating that they thought of me when they heard something in the news, and understood it better because of my course, I feel heartened that my approach has had enduring results. Connecting past and present—and modelling historical analysis—helps us create better history students and more educated citizens.
1 I am grateful to Marc Jason Gilbert, Zhiwei Xiao, Tony Acevedo, Jennifer Heuer, Antonio Zaldivar, Harriet Lipman Sepinwall and Steve Goldstein for offering comments on earlier versions of this essay or for sharing their own classroom experiences.
2 "When Your Subject Matter Becomes Inherently 'Political' in the Contemporary Context" (March 19–23, 2018), at https://networks.h-net.org/node/20292/discussions/1566301/when-your-subject-matter-becomes-inherently-political. This article is an expanded version of my contribution to that discussion, at the encouragement of Prof. Marc Jason Gilbert.
3 For instance John Broich, "We Asked 16 Historians if They Think Trump is a Fascist. This Is What They Said," HNN (October 23, 2016), https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/164170; Mark Byrnes, "Trump Isn't a Fascist. He Has Fascist Instincts," HNN (May 24, 2016), https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153772; and the HNN Fascism Tags page [https://historynewsnetwork.org/tag/887].
4 A class might even want to edit Wikipedia as an experiment, either to see what happens when they add something false, or to improve the quality of selected entries based on primary sources and recent scholarship. Seeing whether the editors accept or reject these changes will give them insight into how this crowdsourced site works, compared to peer-reviewed journals.
5 My colleague Zhiwei Xiao has had success integrating the news more systematically. He requires students to read the New York Times's World section each day before each class (he notes that the four-month Academic Rate is much cheaper than a textbook, currently $4/month). While prepping for class, Prof. Xiao identifies articles that seem most relevant to that day's lecture. Then he begins the class period asking students which stories they found most interesting. He sees if they can identify the articles most relevant to what they are covering; if not, he signals them himself. Prof. Xiao notes that, "Most of the time, I can find something in that section of the paper that I can connect with the theme I planned to address that day. A story about an African country may provide a good lead-up to a discussion of the legacy of colonialism, a territorial dispute somewhere reminds us of the history of empire building, and news about the release of another gadget or computer game could be used to start the lecture on the role of science and technology in modern history" (email to author, April 3, 2018).
6 This essay focuses on including limited discussion of current events in the world history survey. For instructors who wish to incorporate longer discussion of "hot" topics, or need help managing conflict in the classroom over such topics, several resources exist. These include Yale University Center for Teaching and Learning, "Teaching Controversial Topics" [https://ctl.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/teaching-controversial-topics]; idem, "Managing Controversy" [https://ctl.yale.edu/teaching/teaching-how/chapter-2-teaching-successful-section/managing-controversy]; Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning - Harvard University, "Hot Moments in the Classroom" [https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/hot-moments]; and Center for Faculty Excellence – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "Teaching Controversial Issues" (2004) [https://www2.humboldt.edu/diversity/sites/default/files/Teaching_Controversial_Issues-Center_for_Faculty_Excellence-UNC_Chapel_Hill.pdf].
8 "Women's March 2018: Protesters Take to the Streets for the Second Straight Year," New York Times (January 20, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/20/us/womens-march.html; and
9 Women's March Global, Look Back March Forward Event Map [https://www.womensmarchglobal.com/look-back-march-forward].
10 These included Alf Heggoy, The French Conquest of Algiers, 1830: An Algerian Oral Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1986); and Alexis de Tocqueville, Writings on Empire and Slavery, ed. and trans. by Jennifer Pitts (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). For a fuller discussion of how I have adapted this course at different political moments, see Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, "'Is This Tocqueville or George W. Bush?' Teaching French Colonialism in Southern California After 9/11," World History Bulletin XXVI, no. 1 (Spring 2010), 18–23.
11 See Military Times 2018 rankings [https://rebootcamp.militarytimes.com/education-transition/rankings/2017/11/20/218-schools-make-military-times-best-colleges-2018-rankings/] (CSUSM is rated #24).
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